The Wilderness Wanderer - Part 2
You will perceive that thus far I have been speaking of God s dealings in providence, for I have often observed, that God speaks to us in providence before He speaks to us in grace. It is often indeed true, that, as Elihu says, "God speaketh once, yea twice, yet man perceiveth it not;" but sooner or later "he openeth the ears of men and sealeth their instruction," so that they are obliged to listen. When, then, He has made them see His hand and listen to His voice in providence, then He begins to deal with their soul. It is, then, especially when the Lord speaks home conviction to the heart, applies His law with power to the conscience, lets down a sense of His displeasure into the spirit, that He turns the fruitful land into a wilderness, as the Psalmist speaks in the Psalm before us: "He turneth rivers into a wilderness, and the watersprings into dry ground; a fruitful land into barrenness, for the wickedness of them that dwell therein." Ps 107:33,34 The wide flowing river He dries up and turns into a wilderness; the gushing water-springs He stops at their very head, and changes the pastures which they watered into dry ground, and the fruitful land He withers and parches into barrenness. And why? "For the wickedness of them that dwell therein." This, of course, is a general truth; but we may take it experimentally. When, then, he has a sight and sense of the wickedness that dwells in his heart, how it mars all earthly good; what a wilderness it makes this world to a child of God, and turns the rivers of former delight into a barren desert. Instead of the pleasure he expected to reap from this world, all, all is marred to him; and this is the preveiling and uppermost feeling of his mind: "I have an immortal soul; I have a holy God to deal with: how shall I escape the wrath to come, the wrath to come? What shall I do? Where shall I go? What will be the end of my poor guilty soul unless I get pardon and peace?" Now, to this man the world is a wilderness. Offer him pleasures and amusements; give him money; set before him prospects of advancing himself in life, such as would make the eyes of worldly men glisten with eagerness and desire; and he would say: "What is all this to me, when my soul is at stake? The grand point, the only point which presses hard and heavy upon my mind is this: What will be my portion when death closes the scene?" This concern and anxiety about his immortal soul has turned the world into a wilderness.
Thus far I have described somewhat of the first work upon the soul, and its effect in making the world a wilderness. But we must not limit it to the first work. It is the experience of all the "redeemed;" and those of whom I have thus far spoken are only just entered on it. The wilderness wanderer is more especially he who, like the children of Israel, has had his many years of toilsome pilgrimage in the waste, howling wilderness. He is one, therefore, who has had to wade through trial after trial, affliction after affliction, and temptation after temptation. He is one whom the Lord is continually exercising and trying, for "the Lord trieth the righteous" one whom He is thus experimentally teaching that this world must and can never be to him anything but a barren wilderness. But I must not linger here, and shall therefore pass on to a further elucidation and explanation of the character in the text. I have called him a "wilderness wanderer." Let us now, then, come to his wanderings.
II. "They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way." The wilderness had no roads in it of any kind, or In any direction. No beaten paths were there made, to guide the wanderers, and except from the stars they did not know north from south, nor east from west; wherever they wandered it was a wilderness still of wide, waste, barren sand, out of which it seemed scarcely possible for them ever to emerge. Taking the figure spiritually, does not this feature describe how many of the Lord s people are wandering in a wilderness world, not knowing where to direct their steps, and doubting whether they ever shall emerge out of it, often fearing that they shall die in it, and that without hope?
III. But two other marks are added:
1, That they found the wilderness "a solitary way;" and
2, "that they found no city to dwell in." We will consider both these features, and the last first.
1. By finding "no city to dwell in," is meant that the wilderness wanderers found no place where they could take up a settled abode. A city is a place with settled inhabitants, in ancient times, and even now in most foreign countries, surrounded with walls and gates, and thronged with a populous crowd, engaged in pursuits of business or pleasure. As opposed to the wilderness, it carries with it the idea of a fixed and settled habitation; and you can easily conceive what a wide difference there must be between the inhabitants of a wilderness and of a town. Indeed, so great is this difference, that nothing can induce the Bedouin Arabs to live in towns; and on the other hand, the inhabitants of a town could as little exist in a desert. Thus the idea is, that these wilderness wanderers could find no place to obtain settled rest; they could not settle down anywhere, so as to say: "I have now found a happy home; now I am comfortable; now I am come out of the wilderness, and here I am in a peaceful, inhabited city, where I can eat, drink, and be merry." Far better is it for them to be still wandering in the wilderness than obtain such a false peace and deceptive settlement as this.
And yet, how many of whom we once hoped well seem to be entangled in this snare. There seemed to be a time when we could feel toward them as wilderness wanderers, but now they are sunk into carnal ease and security. They have found a city to dwell in. They are resting in the form without the power; the name without the reality; the doctrine without the life and spirit of it; the shadow without the substance. Far better would it be for them to be wandering in the wilderness than to have reached and found a home in the city of the dead. O how many who once seemed exercised with wilderness trials, and to manifest in them the life of God, are now sunk into a worldly state, and appear more at home with worldly professors than with the living family of God.
2. But now let us consider another special feature that is stamped upon the true wilderness wanderer. His path is a solitary path. "They wandered in the wilderness in a solitary way." The wilderness was so wide, and they were so thinly scattered in it, that they seemed, for the most part, to be without friends or companions. One was wandering here and another there, each traversing his own path as if he were alone in the desert. How this adds to its trials and difficulties. In a literal desert, it is almost, if not wholly, death to be alone; and therefore they always travel in caravans or companies. You will recollect it was to a company or caravan, as we now call it, of Ishmaelites or Arabs, that Joseph was sold Ge 37:25; and so it says in Ps 84:7: "They go from strength to strength," where it is in the margin, "from company to company." But in the spiritual wilderness there is not much of this company, nor do the pilgrims heavenward travel much in caravans. Theirs is for the most part a solitary way. Hart well says
Companions if we find,
Alas! how soon they re gone;
For tis decreed that most must pass
The darkest paths alone.
Now I believe that all true religion is a solitary religion -a religion carried on between God and one s own soul; and I do also believe that a saint of God can never do without solitude. He must have seasons of retirement for prayer, reading, and meditation. I pity those who are compelled from circumstances to live in houses or families where they can scarcely get an hour s solitude to meditate, to pray, to confess their sins, and to carry on that gracious and heavenly intercourse with God, without which religion soon dwindles away. The best of our religion is what we learn in solitude, in the quiet hours of the day, or the solemn seasons of the night. But as the Lord knows all our circumstances, as in trouble He can give quiet, so in a crowd He can give solitude. And thus He no doubt often deals with those of His dear people who are crowded up in their rooms or their families, even amidst crying children or a confused din of conversation. They can sometimes be, as it were, dead to all surrounding noises, and dropping their head upon their bosom, commune with God as much as if they were in the most solitary spot. Besides which, they can get away sometimes from their families into the fields; can creep under a hedge, or stand under a tree, as I have often done, and there pour out their souls before God. A mechanic, too, or a labourer who truly fears God, when engaged in his daily work, can carry on secret dealings with God who reads the heart, when those who work at the same bench, or are labouring in the same field, are carrying on a busy intercourse with thoughts and desires of carnality and sin.
As solitude in itself cannot make a carnal man spiritual, so company, when he is thrown by necessity in it cannot make a spiritual man carnal. He may be surrounded by company, as in a railway carriage, where all manner of conversation is going on, yet sit in a corner and have solitary dealings with God. The Lord may come down and commune with him while all around him is vanity and sin. I remember when the Lord was first pleased to indulge my soul with some sense of His goodness and mercy, I have sat in a room, where I was almost obliged to be present, and when those around me were talking of all manner of worldly things, my heart was secretly going up to the Lord. It is not the place, it is not the company, though we should never go into the place or company where we cannot ask the Lord to accompany us; but at any time and at any place the soul may have solitary moments of prayer and meditation, and the Lord may commune with it from off the mercy seat.
But look at it in another point of view. A solitary way is for the most part the lot of God s people; and especially in our darkest paths, as I have just quoted from Hart, each has to walk alone. We are brought at times into circumstances where none can help us but God; into temptations out of which none but the Lord can deliver; into trials under which none but the Lord can support; afflictions in which none but the Lord can comfort; and fears in which none but the Lord can relieve. As thus walking in a solitary way, we find we are in places where God alone can do us any good. And as all the help and support we get, we get in this way, it endears to us a solitary religion. Not that we do not prize and love the company of those who truly fear God; but the Lord is often pleased to place us in those peculiar circumstances when all our help must come direct from Him alone. We must die alone, and therefore it is good to learn to live alone.
But time admonishes me to pass on with our subject. What was the effect of their wandering in the wilderness, and journeying each in such a solitary way?
II.- "Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them." Their wanderings produced the necessary effect of hunger and thirst; for the wilderness gave them no food to eat, no water to drink. This was a terrible state to be in. The pangs of hunger and thirst are acute enough anywhere; but in a wilderness they are little short of death. But I must not here enlarge. Let us view it spiritually. Wilderness wanderings had given them a spiritual appetite; and thus they were brought under that gracious promise, "Blessed are those that hunger and thirst after righteousness." They wanted food which the world could not give; they wanted water that the world could not supply. Having tasted that the Lord was gracious, having been fed in some small degree with heavenly manna, it put them out of taste with earthly food, They might have all the world could offer if they liked. But the world cannot give them the heavenly food which their souls long for. It cannot give sweet and precious views of Christ, cannot apply promises to their heart, cannot bestow upon them manifestations of the Person and work of Jesus, or drop one drop of His love and blood into their soul. It is the want of these divine realities which makes them hunger and thirst. It is for these testimonies, these blessings, these manifestations, this sweet assurance of pardoning love, with the witness of the Spirit to their spirit that they are God s children, that they inwardly long and pine. They are not hungering and thirsting after such earthly things as worldly hearts seek and delight in, but in the enjoyed favour and presence of the Lord. But this is often either delayed or given in a scanty measure; and what was the consequence?
That "their soul fainted in them." They hungered so long; they thirsted so long; the wilderness was so long and wearisome; the sun beat so hotly upon their head; their feet were so galled with the stones; the sand so got into their shoes, that having no food brought and no water given, the effect was that their soul fainted in them. It was in their feelings as if they must die, must languish away; as if there was nothing in them that could keep them alive, because they had not the food they longed for, nor the water their souls desired. How distressing was all this; but what blessed marks of life. Those dead in sin, or dead in a profession, are not thus hungering and thirsting after Christ. They are not crying out for Christ; not thirsting for the water of life, for the visitations of the presence of God, for a smile of Jesus face, for a touch of Jesus hand, for a whisper of Jesus love.
Now have you never thus hungered for the Lord of life and glory? Have you never thus thirsted for the water of life; never thus felt faint and exhausted because no word was given, no promise applied, no blood sprinkled, no love shed abroad? If not, can you be one of these wilderness wanderers? But on the other hand, if you say, "I do hunger after Christ; I do thirst for the water of life; my soul is often very faint and weary, and I am languishing for a word from His gracious lips; but I find this to be a wilderness world, and myself a wanderer in it: mine is a solitary path, and I find no city to dwell in;" these are marks that God Himself has consecrated as evidences of life divine; these tally with the description given by the blessed Spirit of a wilderness wanderer; and the Lord has written these things in the word of His grace to encourage those who need encouragement.
III.-"Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them out of their distress."
1. What a mercy it is, that the Lord does put a sigh and a cry into the bosom of His people; what a mercy to have a spirit of prayer. I do believe when God is pleased to quicken the soul into life divine, He always gives with that life divine, a spirit of prayer; and I believe also though that spirit of prayer may sink at times very low, it never is extinguished out of a believing heart.
Now, it is by this spirit of prayer, as the blessed Spirit draws it forth, that these wilderness wanderers are enabled to plead their cause with God, to groan forth the desire of their soul, and sigh out their earnest petitions. Don t you find sometimes there is a sigh and a cry going up out of your heart, and this with great earnestness and supplication? But who has raised up this sigh and cry in your heart, and drawn it out, as it were, from your inmost soul, but the Spirit? And by what means chiefly has He wrought? Is it not by bringing you into the wilderness, making you to see and feel that this world is little else but a scene of sorrow and trouble, and thus causing you to walk in a solitary way where none can do you good but God Himself? Have you not found that these exercises have made you seek the Lord with a sincerity and earnestness that you never knew before, and that in them you have learnt the reality and power of prayer?
O what a mercy it is that there is a God to go to! a God who hears and answers prayer? And what a blessing it is to be able to unbosom before Him the burdened spirit! Observe the words: "Then they cried unto him in their trouble." If you have trouble it is a sufficient warrant for you to go to God with it. Do not trouble yourself with the question, whether you are elect or non-elect. God does not put it in that shape, and you need not. The answer will best show on which side of the line you stand. Does He not say: "Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver thee and thou shalt glorify me?" If you have a day of trouble, you have here a sufficient warrant to call upon God. Write not, then, bitter things against yourself. If you are enabled to sigh and cry unto the Lord there is life in your soul. God has quickened you by His blessed Spirit if He has put a sigh and cry into your bosom. Remember the men in Ezekiel on whom the Lord put the approving seal. It was those who sighed and cried for the abominations which they saw and felt in themselves and others. Eze 9:4 If, then, the Lord has put a sigh and cry into your bosom on account of your felt inward abominations, you are one of those on whom He has set His seal. Sanctified troubles are some of our greatest blessings; and one of their blessed fruits is that they keep us from settling on our lees and being at ease in Zion.
Careless, worldly minded, proud, covetous professors, stink in carnality and death, where is there ever a cry in their soul? They may have a formal prayer-a morning prayer, an evening prayer, a family prayer, and all as round as a ball, and as cold as Christmas. Stiff and frozen in carnality they are ice themselves, and they bring their ice with them wherever they come. But God does not suffer His people to go on in this cold, lifeless, frozen, icy way, with mere formal devotion, lip service, and prayers worn out like an old shoe with long and continual treading. He sends afflictions, trials, and troubles upon them, takes them into the wilderness, exercises them well in the path of tribulation, and supporting them under it, raises up a cry which He is sure to hear.
2. Our text, therefore says: "And he delivered them out of their distresses." How He does this is blessedly intimated in a verse of the Psalm before us: "He sent his word and healed them." Thus in due time He sends a healing word, gives a gracious smile, drops into their soul a sweet manifestation of His goodness and mercy, and thus delivers them out of their distresses. They had been in a very distressed state of mind because they could not see their signs; and they scarcely knew where they were or what they were. But when the Lord appears in them and for them, He delivers them out of their distresses. One smile, one touch, one soft whisper, one intimation: "I have loved thee and given myself for thee;" one breaking in of His presence and His power; one manifestation of pardoning mercy, -let the soul have but this, and it will say, "It is enough, Lord, it is enough; I want no more."
When the promise thus comes with power, and the Lord appears, every crooked thing is made straight, and every rough place plain; sins, however great or many, are cast behind God s back; and every thing made clear and right between God and the soul. Now it sees the reason why the world was made to it a wilderness; the necessity that there was for the afflictions, bereavements, losses in providence, trials in the family, difficulties in circumstances, dark clouds which so long hung over it; and it is fully reconciled to the rough and thorny path by which it has been brought. It can now say, feelingly and gratefully, "I needed every stroke; I needed to be dealt with in this painful way; I was getting into a worldly state of mind; I was hugging my idols and would not part with them. Bless God for the affliction; thank Him for His rod upon my back; honours crown His brow that He would not let me go on in my sins, but would tear my idols from my breast, and pulled me roughly along, if He could not bring me to my right mind in any other way."
IV.-But how this tallies with the last point of our text: "He led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city of habitation."
1. It was He who led them forth. He was going before them, then, all the time; His sacred light in their conscience, His secret life in their soul, His inward teachings in their heart were all along guiding them, but at the time they could not see it. They were led along by a sure and powerful, yet invisible hand. They had to be brought forth out of many evils open and secret, known and unknown, seen and unseen, external and internal. And from no one of these could they deliver their own souls. How deeply were they indebted even to restraining grace. Can you not say so? What has kept you from bringing an open disgrace upon the cause? What has kept you tender in conscience, consistent in conduct, circumspect in life, desirous to adorn the doctrine, and afraid to dishonour it? Why, the grace of God and that only, and this working for the most part in and by a path of tribulation. Your exercises of mind; the various trials and temptations that have fallen to your lot; your griefs and sorrows; and especially those which have most closely touched your soul, have all worked for good, to make your conscience tender, to show you the evil of sin, and to keep you from being wrapped up in carnality and covetousness, or entangled in pride and self-righteousness. Thus, you may bless the Lord for being afflicted as well as comforted, being wounded as well as healed, emptied as well as filled, stripped as well as clothed; for all have worked together for the good of your soul.
It is much in this way that the Lord leads His people forth; and when the Lord leads, we can follow. The path may be rough, but if the Lord upholds, we can walk in it without stumbling. Whatever the Lord bids, we can do if we have but His presence; whatever He calls upon us to suffer, we can bear if we have but the approbation of a good conscience and His approving smile. O the wonders of sovereign grace! The cross is no cross if the Lord give strength to bear it; affliction is no affliction if the Lord support under it; trial is no trial sweetened by His smile, and sorrow no grief if lightened by His love. It is our fretfullness, unbelief, carnal reasoning, rebellion, and self-pity which make a rough way a wrong way; but grace in its all-conquering power, not only subdues every difficulty without, but what is its greater triumph, subdues every difficulty within.
Now look back and see how the Lord has led you from the very first. Can you say, looking up to God, "Lord, it has all been a wrong way?" You may say, and say feelingly, "I have often done what is wrong, wrong in myself, wrong to myself; nay, I have always, left to myself, chosen the wrong way; my wicked, perverse heart has ever chosen what was pleasant and sweet to the flesh, and thence has sprung so much of my guilt and shame. But as to the way in which the Lord has dealt with me, where I can trace any of His dealings, I dare not so insult His divine Majesty, or so belie my own conscience, as to say He has led me wrong." God forbid that any saint of His should say the Lord has led them by a wrong way. He cannot do but what is right; for as He is good and doeth good, so He is right and doeth right. It is, and ever must be, one of the strongest principles of our faith, that every way must, in the end, be a right way if it be God s way.
And is it not, according to the verdict of our own conscience, a right way to lead us forth out of the world, out of sin, out of self, out of pride and self-righteousness, out of evil in every form, into everything which is good, holy, gracious, acceptable, saving, and sanctifying; everything that can conform us to the image of Christ, who was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and make us meet for the inheritance of the saints in light?
II. And what is the end of all this leading and guiding? "That they might go to a city of habitation"-the new Jerusalem, the glorious city which hath foundations whose builder and maker is God. There, some of our friends have gone before; there they dwell as citizens of that blessed city which is ail of pure gold, like unto clear glass; a city which has no need of the sun, neither of the moon to shine in it, for the glory of the Lord lightens it, and the Lamb is the light thereof. The Lord has led forth our dear friends, whom He has taken out of our midst, and some since I was here last, that they might go to this city of habitation, inhabited by the spirits of just men made perfect. This is the city of habitation where the saints will for ever dwell; and the Lord is leading forth each and all of His wilderness wanderers by the right way, that He may bring them in the same way into His eternal presence, and to the enjoyment of those pleasures which are at His right hand for evermore.